Seeing “Bad Santa” in full defeats all doubts raised by its trailer. The safe attitude regarding trailers should always be a skeptical one — give all of the movies a thumbs down, and let the critics waste the paper’s money. In particular, for movies campaigning within the Christmas or anti-Christmas subgenre, give them two thumbs down.
Well, see this one — if you can stomach potty-flavored humor, raunch sexual deeds and cracks at the commercialized American’s suburban dream, as well as the fate of any Sisyphus. “Bad Santa” hits the stomach, the heartland and the mind.
“Bad Santa” earns its good reviews, though probably not any Oscars. Director Terry Zwigoff whips up the best satire since “Clueless.” Except the number of times Cher says, “like,” expect Santa to say, “f*ck” or something else polluted. And that explains why I could never expect Film Studies Center Director Michael Kerbel to actually watch this movie, though I still would hope he’ll buy it for Yale’s collection.
In particular, Bad Santa offers two amazing items — director Terry Zwigoff and Billy Bob Thornton. Zwigoff’s body of work includes the documentary “Crumb” (1994) and the adapted-from-underground-comic “Ghost World” (2000). (Admirers of Scarlett Johanssen of “Lost in Translation” should check out the latter.) Under Zwigoff’s direction, Billy Bob becomes a “living-ing-drinking-sh*tting” cartoon: Bad Santa himself.
No mother would allow her child to sit on this Santa’s lap if she knew more about him. (If she read the full credits of “Bad Santa” and noticed “story by Ethel and Joel Coen,” it probably wouldn’t make a difference.) Bad Santa, or Willie, tells us straight away in voice-over that he’s been arrested once and divorced twice. He drinks. Each year he and his partner, the masterminding elf Marcus (Tony Cox), pull a heist routine on their employer-of-the-year department store. Marcus fixes the security alarms and Willie cracks the safe. Then Willie spends the rest of the year drunk in Florida. Come Christmas season, the little man gives the jolly man a call telling his partner to meet him in Phoenix.
So Santa and the elf meet for their eighth Christmas season. Here the movie delivers all the mall humor a person could request: kids peeing on Santa’s lap, Santa peeing on his own lap and so forth. Plus, Bernie Mac plays the mall’s head security guard. Then along comes “The Kid,” played like a doughy, blank-headed loser-angel by Brett Kelly. One night, after hours, Willie gives the Kid a lift home. They roll up to a big suburban house, and Willie pulls on a black ski-mask. But, eventually Willie realizes that he can just live there in the master bedroom; the Kid’s sole guardian, his grandma, would only like to make them sandwiches. He doesn’t have to rob them.
In order to not spoil the ending, which is quite exciting, I will just jump to the very end. This movie doesn’t bury its great beginnings in a Christmas-Peter-Pan hybrid, I-believe-in-reindeer solution. Instead, it offers a cool-funny-satisfying conclusion that seems to say the man whose heart is not completely taken over by evil toxins does OK — sometimes. Bad Santa is his own man, and often a “bad” man. But his anti-hero unapologetic behavior excuses his foul play. So the movie ends, though not before Zwigoff gives a final birdie to all of us out there in the audience. We’ve all been an asshole at one point or another.
The range of “Bad Santa” travels from terribly low-brow to subliminally high-brow. This film represents something that Hollywood should be proud of, the best form of American entertainment. It’s funny and rotten, but also pointed. It delivers social criticisms in the vehicle of humor. Yalies might allow themselves to laugh because first, it points to something smart, and second, it’s funny.